By Guest Work 18/01/2018


By Dr Jez Weston

Our clients have already purchased drugs and most already plan to use them. Yet when they discover that the substances they have are not the substances they presume them to be, half tell us that they will not take them.

This is a significant percentage and, as far as we know, a far larger change of behaviour than that achieved through other means of reducing the harm from drugs.

Of course, our clients could be lying to us about their intentions. However, the numbers have been consistent across several years. We also have a disposal jar full of bleach and many clients are willing to destroy their samples in front of us, so we think their intentions are valid.

So why are people willing to believe our results and act upon them? We think there are five factors at work here: our non-judgemental stance, trust, reciprocation, involvement in testing, and immediate results.

Facing reality

Drug testing reflects the reality that people are going to take drugs. The desire for intoxication has always been a part of human experience. We don’t take a judgmental position pro- or anti-drugs. We just don’t want people to get hurt. Our approach acknowledges the agency of the user, and therefore encourages mature decision making.

Trust is critical for people in possession of illegal substances to bring them to us for testing. It helps that we’re not the authorities. We are a grass-roots organisation and many of our volunteers have attended, assisted, or organised festivals for more than a decade. Being members of the community we serve nurtures a higher level of trust, in what can be a very exposing situation for our clients.

We are going out of our way to provide a free service for our clients, so in a sense, it’s a gift from us to them. This sets up a mutual obligation. We’ve provided our clients with a service that they value; it’s now up to them to reciprocate by providing us with something that we value, namely making safer choices about their drug use.

Ready to test: Wendy Allison, the director of KnowYourStuffNZ

We make sure that the testing process is immediate and involves our clients as much as possible. We are not allowed to be in possession of illegal drugs, which means our clients have to do all of the sample preparation and handling themselves – we have to ask our clients to crush up crystals, shave some specks off the corner of a pill, or cut a section from a blotter. The testing and interpretation of the results happens in front of them, while they watch, within a few minutes.

Psychological buy-in

With the reagent spot testing, we can let our clients draw their own conclusions – we hand them a colour chart of the likely results for each reagent, point to the colour spot, and ask them to what substances this test indicates. This provides a psychological buy-in to the process and again acknowledges the agency of the client in decisions about their own drug use. We have found that this involvement and immediacy are a major factor in a person’s acceptance of the final result.

None of this is surprising. These are all simple factors that lead to people taking advice on board and making healthier decisions. What’s surprising is how this simplicity clashes with the dominant narratives about drug ‘abuse’. The majority of drug users we see are not addicts or drug abusers. They are adults who want to have a good time, are willing to take on a small amount of risk to do this, and are keen to reduce that risk.

When someone who has purchased drugs and is planning on taking them becomes someone who is willing to not take them and dispose of their drugs in front of us, that shows the confidence they are placing in our testing and explains the remarkable effectiveness of this form of harm reduction. Put simply, providing factual, objective information to allow people to make better choices leads to them making better choices.

Read part I of this series: Recreational drugs the technology of pill testing

Dr Jez Weston has a background in materials science, science policy, and the role of evidence in guiding decisions. He used to be a lab scientist, so enjoys the opportunity to go to festivals and do some real bench science, with the goal of keeping people safe and informing drug policy. He provides logistic, operational and strategic assistance to KnowYourStuffNZ.